Iowa women's basketball treks into Northwestern rematch with confidence and offense restored

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Amid this hectic stretch of makeup games and schedule adjustments, Lisa Bluder isn't so much worried about her Hawkeyes' physical stamina. Navigating the quick opponent flips and minimal prep time is what the Iowa women's basketball coach considers top priority.

So far, though, the Hawkeyes have delivered a quality grade on and off the court. 

"We talked to them about, 'Listen, you can't control change. Change happens,'" Bluder said. "That Penn State game (on Tuesday) wasn't supposed to happen then. But we handled it really, really well. Our flight was delayed three hours coming home that night. We were supposed to be home at a reasonable time, but we didn't get home until close to 1 a.m. Change — but they handled it really well. I'm really excited about the maturity of this team.

"What I'm more worried about are one-day preps. We had a one-day prep for Penn State. And now — we had to take Wednesday off because you have to have a mandatory day off every week — so Thursday, we have another one-day prep and travel again to play at Northwestern. Mentally, you have so much you have to remember."

Friday's 7 p.m. game at Welsh Ryan Arena is Iowa's third leg of a four-games-in-nine-days stretch. The No. 24 Hawkeyes (13-4, 7-1 Big Ten Conference) haven't had any issues so far in Sunday's blowout over Illinois or Tuesday's rout at Penn State, but Iowa knows Northwestern presents an even tougher challenge — even if the Wildcats (11-7, 3-4) haven't been playing well since the teams last met on Jan. 6. 

Northwestern's 77-69 win inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena looked like a tone-setter on both sides. The Wildcats rebounded emphatically after a lengthy COVID pause, while Iowa's uncharacteristic offensive struggles didn't fade upon returning to league action. In a surprising script flip, it was Iowa's identity under Bluder costing the Hawkeyes games. 

Everything has shifted since.

The Hawkeyes are undefeated since, having ripped off a six-game winning streak that's seen Iowa average nearly 94 points per game. As for Northwestern? It's 1-4 since with three double-digit losses and multiple changes to the starting lineup. Perfect chance for Iowa to end its rare three-game losing streak against the Wildcats. The Hawkeyes haven't lost four consecutive against Northwestern since losing six in row from 1980-84 to open the series. 

"Northwestern, I haven't beaten in my college career yet — 0-3," guard Caitlin Clark said. "They've kind of had our number. But I really want to get them back, especially on their home floor. We're playing really well and have seen some more zone defense than we're used to this year. They obviously play that funky 'Blizzard' zone, but I think we're really on a streak right now and starting to find our groove. Just taking that with us on the road."

Iowa players cheer during a Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Illinois on Jan. 23 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

With Clark's national spotlight growing and Iowa back among the Big Ten leaders — the Hawkeyes and Michigan are the only two with one league loss behind unbeaten Indiana — all appears right in Iowa City after a turbulent December.  

Just as Iowa got through that adversity, plowing through this busy week is the only way to keep those strong vibes going. 

"We feel good about ourselves right now," Bluder said. "And confidence is a big part of this game. It's amazing what it'll do for you. We're just a lot more aggressive and confident."  

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.